Art and Aesthetics in Action
Written by: Professor Severyn T. Bruyn
1. Theoretical Aesthetics
Theoretical aesthetics is like theoretical physics. By its sophistication it makes a powerful demand on a student’s intelligence. It should attract only the bravest for there is no career in it outside the university. The relationship of aesthetics to philosophy will help us see the connection of aesthetics to all university disciplines.
The New Aesthetics and Philosophy
The subjects of philosophy and art are virtual opposites. Philosophy emphasizes thought and reason and art emphasizes human feeling and spirit. So, we are already in trouble. Philosophers cannot explain art as though they were the final authority. This would be elitist and it would be foolish to try it, as postmodernists say with conviction.
But philosophy can supply insight into the intelligence of art. Let me offer an image of how philosophical ideas help us understand certain aspects of this new field.
Below are polar ideas in philosophy. Polar ideas are contrary or contradictory to one another. The taxonomic image in Table 1 should prepare our thinking about how a philosophy of aesthetics develops in a university.
The analysis of D.W. Gotshalk is based on contrary principles, but we now expand their number. A new philosophy of aesthetics now asks questions about how contrary ideas touch every discipline. We about to embark on a new venture in aesthetics.
Table 1 An Image of Academic Culture
Polar Principles in Art
Students who study philosophy should look at these polar ideas as paradoxes. The philosophy of art in this sense is about how opposing principles (ideas) are dynamically related. Table 1 would indicate that the arts are rooted in the mutual opposition of ideas. And these ideas are linked to human feelings.
Let’s be clear. This is a perspective in philosophy. The principles are for thought and reasoning, but linked closely to human feelings. The “principle” that represents “feeling” in Table 1 refers to feelings, but does not express them. The feelings that are expressed in a work of art cannot be explained by such principles. But the principles still tell us to be aware of how feelings are mutually involved.
This list of polar ideas then offers a basis for building an agenda for the new aesthetics and art criticism. Each set of polar ideas could be under any subject of the university. (Note that male and female are listed under both physical science and politics to illustrate the variability of this perspective.) We cannot review all these ideas in Table 1 but we can illustrate a few of them to show how this agenda works in philosophy. The new agenda is about learning what contrary ideas can tell us about art, which is not grounded in ideas alone. Here are a few examples.
The Beautiful vs. Hideous
The theory that “art is based on beauty” or that art is based on what is pleasing to the senses is not adequate alone. Some critics would say that the criterion of beauty would eliminate great masterpieces like Michaelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” Goya’s Black Paintings, the magnificently painted “The Death of Marat” by Jacques Louis David, and a treasure of biblical paintings created during the Renaissance. These works portray very unpleasant subjects.
But if not Beauty, what then defines art? The answer begins as we explore the contrary ideas in Table 1.
The Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s “pretty, but is it art?
All feelings like ideas are mutually interdependent. What is beautiful cannot be understood without understanding the social setting and the cultures of race, gender, and class, but here we look at the philosophical problem. Beauty cannot be understood without its opposite, i.e. what is ugly or repulsive.
John Merrick “the Elephant Man” lived in the late 1800s in England and for most people was hideous, the most ugly person in the world. He had bulbous, cauliflower-like growths growing from his head and body, and his right hand and forearm became a useless club. The transformation of him from being utterly repulsive to being attractive was a subject for philosophers who wrote about it. Some dramatists wrote plays about what happened in this transformation.
What happened? The ugliest man alive became attractive. Playwrights sought to reproduce what happened as they brought the audience in the play from a point of seeing his body as totally offensive to a point where he could seen on the inside as a kind and compassionate man. The basis for the change was a shift in the eye of the beholder, from an outer look to an inner look.
This transformation for the beholder is important. It concerns the relationship between what is ugly by convention and what is seen equally by convention to be beauty inside. In this case, it is a story of the shift in perception from an outer to an inner seeing.
A different interpretation would be that a picture may appear hideous or a story may be offensive or a music style may seem abhorrent but at that point that it raises one’s sensibilities to a higher level of perception, it becomes a work of art.
Notice how a concept of beauty is developing from the past. Plato describes beauty as “unity, integrity and clarity.” St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Beauty is that which gives us pleasure when we behold it.” Immanuel Kant exclaims it is “apprehending without moral concept.” Here we see that beauty develops in the eye of the beholder by a higher perception of what lies behind appearance.
Jaymi Zents bases her artwork on the idea that beauty is filled with contradictions. She connects the beautiful and the ugly with other contraries, like vitality vs. decay, and life vs. death. She says, “The relationship of decay and beauty underlies most of my work in drawing, sculpture, and photography,
…The frailties of the flesh, its rashes, stains, scars, and the stress of everyday functions create narratives. The inherent conflicts of the body [and its] constant renewal, self-preservation versus the self-destruction of aging, and the cautious alliance of immunity to vulnerability inform many of the figures. It is the notion of the contaminated within the pristine. These dualities mark where my interests lie.
For Zents as an artist, the distortions of the body and the decay of flesh are intricately related to “regeneration and life.” Art in her sense is about the interplay of the beautiful and the repulsive and life and death.
Zents is saying that a work of art may reveal how one side of a polarity is discovered through its opposite. It means deftly presenting the hidden value. A sense of beauty develops as it connects meaningfully with what is by convention the very opposite.
The artist must imitate that which is within a thing, that which is active through form and figure, and discourses to us by symbols.
In this sense, the artist and the sociologist should work together. Both are interested in understanding the deep contradictions within modern culture: the Refined vs. the Vulgar, the Normal vs. the Deviant, the Standard vs. the Grotesque. These opposing categories are too often isolated in our minds. The artist may reveal what is hidden in the dominant category. What is beautiful may appear in a subdominant culture. Here we begin to see something of a new agenda for aesthetics.
The transformation of the ugly into a higher power requires that skill of an artist. Sister Wendy Becket says of Van Gogh.
He has the rare power, something like that of Rembrandt, to take the ugly, even the terrible, and make it beautiful by sheer passion.
Let’s look at more examples of how these polar ideas clarify what art is all about.
Rage and Despair
The polar ideas of “despair vs. rage” in Table 1 refer to feelings felt commonly by people at some stage in life. But these feelings are very different, and often appear in opposition.
The actual feeling of rage and despair appears contrary, but Table 1 argues that they are closely linked. How these feelings are linked is the paradox to solve. The new philosophy of art would emphasize the mutual opposition in these emotions. The artist then shows how one side is connected to the other.
Let us say that rage is conscious and despair is unconscious, thus, linked. They appear in opposition because the conscious mind has trouble tolerating them both at the same time.
Shakespeare’s depiction Othello shows this alternation of rage and despair as they become linked into a tragedy. One hidden emotion pushes the other from some hidden place in his mind. Othello’s rage slowly wins and advances toward the murder of his wife Desdemona. Then, despair and darkness enter again. The way these emotions are linked is a challenge for the artist. Here we see how the shift in emotion is described in Othello’s reasoning.
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars:
The entire action is now complete. Desdemona is dead.
Rage and despair are universal feelings even while they have their special expressions. They existed in people of ancient times as well as modern. The fine art in this case is in the way Shakespeare leads us to identify with the hero who articulates the legitimacy of his murder in his final raging despair. The story reveals how these emotions are linked and resolved in tragedy. The story is there for everyone to see.
But other polar ideas can be seen operating here and they add value to this play as a work of art. For example, we now ask again how the problem of beauty vs. hideous becomes expressed in Othello. How is Othello hideous and yet somehow attractive at the same time? Is there something beautiful as well as ugly about him? Is there a kind of charm and grace in him? Is beauty also expressed in the structure of this play, such as the rhythm of its movement toward its climax?
Now, notice the interplay of other opposites in Shakespeare’s Othello, such as closeness vs. distance. Do we have a sense of beauty by the distance that we as audience have from the emotions on stage? Do we see beauty in this stretch between empathy vs. detachment?
One more step. Let us look at the context of this work in Elizabethan society. Here Shakespeare’s art shows how he contradicted the conventions of society. Brad Campbell argues that Shakespeare doesn't simply imitate life, it integrates life, transforms it, and then adds a commentary on it. Shakespeare does not simply reproduce the realities of madness as in King Lear or Othello. Rather, he “participates in the redefining spirit of his age by transforming and re- presenting the object of his society's fascination.”
Campbell argues that the construction of madness in King Lear undermined popular beliefs. Shakespeare puts “reason into madness” and defies definitions of it as simply irrational. People thought of madness as something totally illogical and unsound. Here we are brought to see the great reasoning that goes with insanity. When we see how that happens, as it is done so realistically in Shakespeare, we empathize with those who are insane. We are no longer totally isolated from them.
Most aficionados would agree that Shakespeare was not on a moral crusade. He did not have a strict moral agenda. He just revealed what was concealed. He wrote the truth as he saw it.
The new agenda in the philosophy of art means that we look deeply into the contraries of human nature. A new philosophy of aesthetics points to such contraries, the conditions of mutual opposition that call for resolution.
In other great works of art, stories and plays that are different from Shakespeare, the opposing emotions (e.g. rage and despair) may resolve into a higher emotion. In the New Testament story of Paul becoming saved on the road to Damascus we witness a story of a different resolution. Paul’s despair is settled through his personal transformation. Similar stories of transformation are told in other great religions.
In sum, Table 1 draws our attention to the fact that the opposing conditions of life are not isolated from each other. In a great work of art -- whether a poem, a painting, or a play -- people identify with the figures, feel the connections between the contradictions, and acquire insight into human nature.
Mind vs. Body
Matter vs. Spirit
These opposing ideas can become isolated through great ideologies or systems of belief, such as materialism or spiritualism. Each great idea can become a belief and appear separate or in opposition, but Table 1 argues for a connection. Let’s look at this mutual opposition in art.
In Table 1, the principles “mind vs. body” are a perennial problem in an apparent dualism. But this Table proposes that a body composed of matter is mutually involved with the mind, not isolated. This seems easy to accept but the Table says more than what is conventional. It says equally that the mind is in mutual opposition with the nervous system and all the cells of the body. This is the logic of a new aesthetic, that the mind is involved with the whole body. And it is important to see how this works in art.
Jackson Pollock sensed that the rhythms of his body were important to his artwork. He painted in a cadence, many times dripping, flinging, pouring, and smearing paint on to a canvas. He felt that the body’s movement was essential to art. If you look carefully, you can see the embodied rhythm in “Number 1A” (1948).
Insert: Number 1A
But again the eye of the beholder is critical to an aesthetic experience. You may not see the connection. You might look and see nothing but splattered paint. The significance of the painting as a work of art then rests in a series of complementary tensions. The tensions may be between what is conventional in art and an innovation.
Yet, there is more to explore about this polarity between mind and matter.
Theoretical physicists find that Pollack’s paintings, known for their (seeming) random distribution of drips and streaks, are “fractal” in nature. Physicists at the University of New South Wales (Australia) subjected Pollack’s artwork to the kind of mathematical scrutiny usually given to fractures in crystals and distributions of galaxies. They found that the paintings bore similar features at each of many size scales, the hallmark of “fractalness.” The characteristic “fractal dimensionality” is roughly related to the “indentedness” of the object’s texture. And these scientists say that the correlation of “dimensionality” in Pollack’s work increased through the years.
Here is another agenda for the new aesthetics: exploring the advancing works of art in conjunction with advancing science.
The paintings of Mark Tobey exemplify another connection between the body and mind. The surface of Tobey’s painting ”White Journey” swarms with minute abstract signs, and scratches of paint, which looks like a chaotic pattern. The frenetic rhythm of the delicate lines in this painting looks like quarks and neutrons in action. We shall have more to say about this mind-body relation when we discuss the subject of aesthetics and science. But our point for the moment is that a physical body carries all the elements of nature, as it is revealed in the motions of an artist.
Insert: White Journey
Art is not simply a product of the mind -- as though the material world was absent. It is not based on simply intuition as Benedetto Croce argued. The mind and the body are intricately related, as we shall see, sometimes like a mirror and sometimes in a parallel dance.
But D.W. Gotshalk argues that the artist must bring together the right materials to reveal this connection in aesthetic ways. The tensions in the materials (colors in painting, chords in music) are essential to the aesthetic experience.
In sum, art is the creative resolution of what the materials signify to the artist’s intuition and sensibilities. But they are also connected deeply to our physical nature.
Particular vs. Universal
Unique vs. Common
Take another look at the polarities in Table 1. The principles naming the “particular” and the “unique” are like a painting (a symbol) of what they represent. These principles point to what is lower in abstraction from them. They refer to what cannot be abstracted in principle. They signal to our minds what is different, beyond description or principle.
This is what art does. An artwork draws our attention to a specific color, a concrete event, a particular person or a special feeling that is beyond description. The importance of this “difference” (as opposed to sameness) is what tilts postmodern thought against a general aesthetics.
Philosophers of art would answer that criticism something like this: the “particular” cannot be understood without the universal. The unique cannot be understood without the common. So, we likewise argue that such opposing notions are mutually involved.
Put another way, as soon as we look at a work of art and we see something particular, we want to share it through a common idea or a general feeling. It is the particular that draws us so wonderfully into a painting, but it is sharable only through a category, through social thought. Let me illustrate.
The Russian artist Natalia Gontcharova (1881-1962) painted a woman on a tranquil street dressed in elegant black. (“Street in Moscow,” 1909, oil on canvas, private collection.). If we were to share our interpretation of this painting, we must talk about how principles are connected with the particulars, and how they come together.
Insert: Street in Moscow
In this painting, we would not be able to identify the color “black” without having shared an experience of black with others at some point in our life, without comparing its meaning with something different, such as the likeness of white. We begin with that common knowledge and point to how the color black repeats itself as it circles through objects around the painting.
We know that studies of blackness in different cultures have shown how black mean different things to people. It can symbolize sadness in certain cultures and not in other cultures. But here the painter works in a modern setting in Europe.
Black is universal in the sense that all people with eyes can identify it through early training. Then, given that social situation, we can begin to examine the particulars, such as the shades of black and their connection with other elements in the painting. We can begin our first step toward sensing what is particular about black and how it is mutually involved with other colors.
In this painting, the woman is walking out of the picture while a coachman calmly waits behind in his carriage. The face of the woman looks down, which would indicate a feeling of sadness. The observer might further interpret sadness in the painting based on the arrangement of all the elements. For example, apart from the woman, there is no other movement in this scene. (A lot of movement might bring excitement, not sadness.) All the forms in the painting are simple, flat shapes – the squares and rectangles of the street and buildings, the circles of the wheels and shape of the women’s hat, which reflects the shape of the cart. And all forms are painted in muted tones, again adding to an atmosphere of sadness.
Back to the politics of difference. The “universal” makes it possible to appreciate the particular; the common allows us to cherish the unique. The artist is able to accent the particular as vital to the viewer by virtue of these complementary conditions.
In other words, philosophical aesthetics is an exploration of the relationship between principles and emotions. What is “universal” gives meaning to the particular represented in a work of art. In this painting, this particular woman could carry that sense of universality. The woman is “womanhood,” which is present in her particular figure.
But look further at the universal idea. The quality of being a woman (womanhood) is in tension with the quality of being a man (manhood). And so we see this tension in the separation of womanhood from the coachman in this picture. If one looks closely at the painting, there is a subtle connection by the color blue, which links the woman with her hat and dress (part blue, part black) to the coachman in the same color. The blue color then goes to the empty carriage, and finally to the blue window, looking as though it were a mirror on the scene.
The universal quality in each gender now stands in tension. The larger universal we call humanity. Humanity is the grand universal, so to speak, standing between the genders. And humanity may be concealed as the coachman waits and the woman walks out of the picture.
Someone, I say, will remember us in the future.
Each polar principle helps us to understand the art. Art is the struggle to reveal and ultimately resolve antinomies like these.
The connection between all polar principles in Table 1 is the New Aesthetics in philosophy. The Table only suggests a beginning for this philosophy of art.
But notice that Table 1 does not advance a theory of dualism. Indeed, the purpose of Table 1 is the reverse. It would break the dualism entrenched in the established subjects of modern universities. This Table of differences should raise questions about how isolated subjects could – and should -- be explored in the university.
In sum, philosophy explores connections between contrary subjects through art. A dialectical perspective offers an opportunity to develop that new aesthetics.
The New Aesthetics and Science
Art and science seem worlds apart. But a dialectical perspective sees the two subjects mutually involved. The subjective and the objective side of nature and the inner and outer side of things are connected.
The task of the new aesthetics with science is to reveal that connection between those principles of matter and spirit, ideas and feelings, body and mind. Let us illustrate for a moment how the arts and sciences are intricately connected in subject matter.
Plato said art was an imitation of nature. He envisioned Forms (Ideas or Principles) as though they were above and beyond nature, but Aristotle saw them as inside nature. For Aristotle the form of the oak was invisible in the seed, not outside in some abstract location. Plato and Aristotle represent our dialectical problem: the Form (or Principle) appears both inside and outside nature.
Put another way, Plato located ultimate reality in Ideas or eternal forms, which could be known only through reflection and high reason, but Aristotle saw reality in physical objects, knowable through experience. Objects, including organisms, were composed of their potential to express a higher form. Thus, a block of marble – matter -- has the potential to assume whatever form a sculptor gives it. A seed has the potential to grow into a plant. An embryo has the potential to grow into an animal form. A play has the potential to reveal the fall of a hero from a high estate.
The new agenda for aesthetics is about how each side of the antinomy becomes revealed in the other. How could the real be folded inside the ideal? And how could what is outside nature be really inside? Below we describe how a new aesthetics questions these apparent contradictions.
Inside or outside?
Scientists explain how nature is in motion outside us. Since the Big Bang, nature has been evolving, transforming itself. It has been metamorphosing from one form to another, and one stage to another. The process of evolution has been going on for 12 billion years. It is explained by scientific principles.
We list below a few principles (synthesis, transformation and transcendence) by which scientists have described this evolution. There are many more principles, but these are a few of them in the minds of scientists. Note that in the Aristotelian tradition we might speculate that these “principles” are like seeds inside nature.
Let me put this story in graphic form before we discuss its connection with art.
Nature in Evolution
Let’s look at this process before we get back to the arts. Particles are a “form” of energy that appeared immediately after the Big Bang. During the first fraction of a second, matter and anti-matter flickered in and out and quarks came into existence. The quarks began to synthesize into protons, neutrons and electrons. Atoms became new forms created in this cauldron. Molecules evolved next, as atoms were preserved in their makeup and making the complexity of forms increase. Cells emerged, based on the previous molecular foundation with forms of still greater complexity. Organisms then evolved, created from the previous cell structure, which of course had maintained its molecular and atomic foundation. Consciousness then emerged among animals based on the previous foundation of cells, in turn, constructed earlier from molecules and atoms. Self-consciousness now emerged from animal consciousness, as anthropoids and Homo Sapiens created symbolic speech. Finally, society evolved with its own forms and evolving types of social consciousness.
Scientific principles explain this process. The first stars were made of hydrogen and helium. Deep in their cores they fused (synthesized) hydrogen into helium and then helium transformed into heavier elements. Each stage preserved the older elements and yet transcended them. Now all those atoms are a part of us and compose our inner being. This outer nature is in us.
Scientists have demonstrated a shocking truth: our body and mind are at the zenith of this evolution. All that has transpired in the evolutionary process is essentially inside. The atoms and subsequent transcendent molecules are part of our brain, all integrated into our human nature and linked with our consciousness.
Scientists describe this change as taking place outside, but the explanatory principles are considered inside the mind. In the spirit of Aristotle we could speculate that these great principles (synthesis, transformation, and transcendence) are inside nature as well as in the mind. In the spirit of Plato we could say that that molecules and cells are just a shadow of what is real, that the real principles are still hidden. Here we see the mind-body, and the ideal-real binaries closely inter-bound.
Something extraordinary is going on here. It is like the outer order of nature has turned inside out. It has evolved and transcended into an inner consciousness.
Now art comes back into the picture. Within the spacecraft Hubble’s images are great elliptical figures, reddish in color by their light from mature stars. Here we see crystal blue spiral galaxies, blazing from the glow of their hot, young stars. There are mysterious tadpole-like objects and merging galaxies dubbed as “train wrecks,” and a multitude of faint, “dwarf” like galaxies. They could all be seen as incredible works of art.
Again we ask whether nature outside us – with all its majesty and power -- is inside us. We do not know the whole story.
The outer order of nature is explained by the physical sciences as opposed to the humanities that explain the inner order. They are worlds apart. The subjects of natural and human history are isolated. Students cannot explore the connection. Yet, we know that these opposing subjects are one continuous history.
Now this isolation of subjects moves us back to an agenda for aesthetics.
This dialectic is the subject of a new aesthetics. First, nature can be viewed and portrayed as great works of art. If aestheticians like Clive Bell were to interpret nature in this sense, they would find “significant form.” If “hermeneutic” philosophers were to see nature as a work of art, they would by their logic explore the intent of the creator. This does not happen in science, but in the new aesthetics it becomes possible.
This last question is rising on the agenda for biologists. Disputes are developing around the concept of “intelligent design.” Advocates of intelligent design argue that Darwin’s theory cannot explain all the complexities of change. They have organized conferences at such universities as Baylor and Yale, and assembled a group of more than 100 scientists to criticize Darwinian theory. The biologist Michael Behe at Lehigh University argues that there are molecular machines in the cell, which require so many different components to work that it is virtually impossible to see how this structure could have been created by chance or natural selection.
In the spirit of this new aesthetics, and mindful of Plato and Aristotle, we raise the question of how scientists and artists may be working with the same principles. The scientist may be studying nature’s manner of synthesis and transformation and the artist may be practicing those principles.
Could the scientific principles that explain natural changes be in the production of the fine arts? Could the sciences be discovering what artists are doing?
This is a beginning of a dialogue between the sciences, the arts and humanities. Notice some differences for the moment. Scientists seek some distance from nature to analyze it while artists seek a greater involvement with nature to portray it. Scientists seek to control nature while artists seek a greater identity with it. The work of the arts and sciences are thus complementary in many ways. They could together reveal more about this intricate connection between mind and matter.
Some collaborative work between artists and scientists has begun. Temple Parker, an artist in Hampden, Maine “sees how things connect.” Whether it’s the molecular structure of a cell or a person’s place in the universe, she perceives how a simple shape becomes a complex work of art, where “one thing becomes another.” For her, “every thing has a chance for a metamorphosis.” She turns everything around with a paintbrush -- stars into diamonds, a feminine symbol into a body, a cell into an uncharted landscape, a chalkboard into a canvas.
Imitation vs. Interpretation
Laurie Fendrich, an associate professor of fine arts at Hostra University, describes how she was drawn to Jan van Eyck’s painting “Man in a Red Turban.” It’s a small picture (10 by 7 inches) painted in 1433. It gives her a tingle that comes from being so close to such a great painting. "No intermediary is necessary, and none is present. The thrill of the painting is that it comes to you, perceptually, directly from the artist, almost as it if came off the easel that very day."
Insert: Man in a Red Turban
How did van Eyck do it?
Prof. Fendrich describes the scientific technology of lenses beginning around 1430.They helped artists get proto-photographs of their subjects onto sheets of paper before they started to draw. She follows the study by David Hockney (Secret Knowledge), which presents evidence that Jan van Eyck and other masters -- including Holbein, Vermeer, Hals, Valázquez, Rembrandt, and Caravaggio -- used more tools than their eyes, hands, and brushes to achieve realism. She says these great painters are arguably like trapeze artists using a net that the audience cannot see, or singers like Milli Vanilli who lip-synch songs in concerts.
But there are more complex problems here that do not meet the eye. The senses are products of evolution that have within them the capacity to apprehend only a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. When the eye reproduces images outside itself, it can only make a copy of a limited range of vibrations. Many more vibrations exist that cannot be seen. Also, when the eye registers these vibrations there is an alteration of what exists outside because it registers in a new setting of the brain. The eye may be resonating with those outside vibrations to make what we call a copy, but it is not exactly the same.
Art and science are in the same boat. They are copying only a tiny portion of this spectrum of reality.
What science calls solid facts is based on only what the five senses can apprehend, no more. Yet, this is only a tiny portion of the entire electromagnetic spectrum of reality. The question is to what extent is consciousness able go beyond those perimeters of science.
When we listen to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis we might ask how he was able to do it. How could he unlock this great power of sound? He did it obviously by creating large-scale harmonic structures. And the structures were often developed from no more than a motif of four hammered notes. We know that he conceived it on paper, but how did he apprehend it? Could he have picked up some of those higher vibrations beyond our physical senses?
Aficionados ask how could he unleash energies of such terrifying intensity. For some listeners it is at first frightening music. It sounds “rude, brusque, and almost violent.” Then, we hear the Kyrie section begin with slow, harmonic rhythms and what critics call a “choral edifice of sound," which is then elaborated by soloists in the polyphonic Christe eleison section. The ethereal solo violin and two flutes interrupt the meditative “Praeludium” of the Sanctus. Analysts compare the passage to the breaking of a great ray of light through clouds. For the religious, it is a “hovering of holiness,” a sanctified musical moment.
The scientific word for the range of vibrations in the universe is “electromagnetic radiation.” It involves a stream of photons, each traveling in a wave-like pattern, moving at the speed of light with a specified amount of energy. The difference between radio waves, visible light, and gamma rays is the energy of the photons. Radio waves have photons with low energies, microwaves have a little more energy than radio waves, and infrared has still more; then there is visible light, and then ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays. We cannot see the ultraviolet rays, although we know that the Sun is a source of this radiation. This is of course the scientific (outer) description.
Could music be the inner apprehension of some portion of this spectrum in the universe? We do not know. Exploring the connection is the subject of a new aesthetics.
Scientists are studying the principle of synthesis while artists may be applying it. Scientists study principles to understand nature in an objective sense, while artists may be utilizing them to enhance human perception in a subjective sense.
But how could they be related?
Music seems to exist only in human consciousness, but some theorists have proposed it to be in nature on the outside. Bruce Stephenson reviews theories about how music is in the cyclic motions of planets. He tells how scientists have linked the motions of planets with rhythms and tones. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) described the universe as composed of celestial harmonies.
The Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan describes nature and the whole universe as composed of music.
The mineral, vegetable, animal, and human kingdoms are the gradual changes of vibrations, and the vibrations of each plane differ from one another in their weight, breadth, length, color, effect, sound, and rhythm. Man is not only formed of vibrations, but he lives and moves in them; they surround him as the fish is surrounded by water, and he contains them within him as the tank contains water. His different moods, inclinations, affairs, successes, and failures, and all conditions of life depend upon a certain activity of vibrations, whether these be thoughts, emotions, or feelings. It is the direction of the activity of vibrations that accounts for the variety of things and beings.
Contemporary observers suggest that the scientific concept of “density” is associated with nature as music. The fluctuations of the Nile, the variations in sunspots, the wobbling of the earth’s axis, the undersea currents, and the membrane currents in the nervous system of animals -- all of these things have the same “spectral density.” Is nature already a form of music before we conceive it in our minds?
These are thorny issues. We are faced with a new epistemology here.
The French philosopher Henri Bergson defined science as the use of intelligence to create a system of symbols that describes reality, but also falsifies it. The scientific concept is not reality, he argued. On the other hand, art is based on intuition, which is “a direct apprehension of reality unmediated by thought.” Art cuts through all the symbols of experience. It confronts life directly and expresses reality itself.
Let us rethink this stage of evolution. Animal and human consciousness became autonomous, but not totally isolated from the physical body. The conscious mind evolved and became interactive with the body. It has a subtle interdependence with and through the body. But on the basis of all previous stages of transformation, consciousness has also achieved an independent form, its own autonomy.
Let us stay with this “stage of consciousness” before we look at the connection of art with the social sciences. Each stage of evolution produced more complex forms than previous stages. Consciousness is now that new autonomous form.
Biologists say that “consciousness” begins with animal life. Animal consciousness is closely allied with the nervous system, but in higher stages is not wholly identical with it. The increased sensitivity of the animal brain and nervous system to respond to the outer environment is the mark of that evolution in consciousness. The increased “sensitivity” of animals (from amoebae, to annelids, to frogs, to dogs, to apes) becomes the basis for judging the developing sub-stages of consciousness. Consciousness gradually evolves as an entirely new form, which cannot be fully objectified. It cannot be defined simply as an object, and in this sense transcends the framework of science. This is because science requires that all subjects be turned into an object.
Human consciousness (or self-consciousness) evolved from animal consciousness with the acquisition symbolic speech. Speech developed from the expression of signs among animals that become synthesized into symbols and then developed as the language of early humans. The signs of animals (e.g. birdcalls and the gestures of chimpanzees) transformed gradually through the experiences of homo sapiens as the composer of human speech. Language developed through the additional integration of nouns, adjectives, and verbs. This is the study of language in a process of social evolution. But it can also be viewed from the standpoint of art and aesthetics.
Ancient sages and artists sought to capture the primal sounds of nature. They aimed to imitate the early sounds of the universe, to bring them forward into human consciousness. In the records of ancient literature and the music in India, there are many records of attempts that purport to represent nature’s sounds. The Mandukya Upanishad, one of India’s oldest writings begins with the following: “The syllable OM, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe.” The sound of the OM was widespread, also considered the Primal Vibration in ancient China. In Hinduism, the syllable OM not only represents the concept of “Cosmic Sound” but, when uttered, is believed to actually attune the individual to the celestial Tone itself.
The Vedas place great emphasis upon the art of audible sound. The Vedic language of Sanskrit differentiates between audible sound and Cosmic Sound, calling the former ahata and the latter anahata. Ahata, audible sound, can be heard by means of the ears, whereas anahata cannot. But anahata can be heard (i.e. experienced) by the advanced yogi sitting deep in contemplation.
There is a literature on how the arts portray vibrations in the universe. The practice of Yogis has long been involved in attempts to recover those vibrations; indeed, it is like a science of the inner sound. Gopi Krishna, born in Kashmir, founded the Research Institute for Kundalini at Nishat, outside the capital city of Srinagar. The Institute conducts research on the arts and meditation. His story can illustrate those of many others.
Gopi Krishna describes how he awakened a deep consciousness himself in December 1937. After 17 years of daily meditation, when he would concentrate regularly and intently on a spot above his eyebrows, doing this for approximately three hours each morning before leaving for his office, he began to experience something unusual. On one morning he wrote:
Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid gold entering my brain through the spinal cord. The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder…I [became] a vast circle of consciousness in which the body was but a point, bathed in light and in a state of exaltation and happiness impossible to describe.
He went on at length to discuss it in his autobiography. Here is another piece:
When I look within I am lifted beyond the confines of time and space, in tune with a majestic, all-conscious existence, which mocks at fear and laughs at death, compared to which seas and mountains, suns and planets, appear no more than flimsy rack riding across a blazing sky; an existence which is in all and yet absolutely removed from everything, an endless inexpressible wonder that can only be experienced and not described.
In his meditations, Gopi Krishna began to write extraordinary poetry. Although he had never been trained, he wrote in a brilliant style likened to the sonnets of Shakespeare. Many artists around the world have spoken of similar experiences. They say that their work appears to be guided from deeper forces within their unconscious.
Gopi Krishna then began to write about the need for biological studies of this action rooted in his body. It is about the inner vs. outer experience of the universe. It is a subject for the new aesthetics.
Gottfried Richter writes about art in association with this evolution of consciousness. He connects the development of architecture, sculpture, and painting with early myth and changing legends. In vivid images of art he offers keys to understanding the evolution as part of art history. He says human life has undergone major transformations. It is a story of how consciousness frees itself slowly from pure “sensory entrapment.” The sensory world, he says, is a foundation for consciousness to develop its own form. And here we find art and aesthetics linked closely to the social sciences.
The New Aesthetics and Social Science
Since the beginning of civilization, art and human consciousness have been in stages of evolution. Ken Wilber describes how a “magical worldview” was associated with foraging societies, a “mythic worldview” with agrarian societies, a rational worldview with industrial societies, etc.
Paleolithic artists painted the magical worldspace – objects overlapping each other, little perspectivism, animistic symbols, few constraints of space and time, wholes interchangeable with their parts. Medieval artists painted the mythic worldspace – an entire pantheon of angels, archangels, a God, a Son of that God, the Mother of that God, Moses parting the Red Sea – the themes were the endless possibilities of the mythic worldspace, all depicted, not as symbols, but as realities… all world views present themselves as simply true.”… And with the rise of western society, special themes of art developed with naturalism, realism, impressionism, and abstract expressionism.
We cannot condense the history of art without distorting the subject, but we want to emphasize how art evolves dialectically with society, again a subject of the new aesthetics.
Wilber argues that we cannot judge which worldview is right or wrong since they all yield a certain truth, a certain feeling and beauty for people in their time. But these worldviews become a foundation through which societies evolve a greater consciousness about the nature of things. And this process of social evolution has not stopped.
In a new aesthetics, the “sub-stages” in the evolution of society show sub-stages that parallel in principle those in physical evolution. The sub-stages in society (e.g. hunting, nomadic, etc.) are too complex to review for our purposes but they are comparable in their higher form to sub-stages in nature. Molecules, for example, moved from simple to complex forms (monatomic metals and ionic compounds to the DNA). The causal connection between such sub-stages is still studied without telos, a sense of purpose. But these stages could be compared for their common principles and studied as works of art.
Science assumes that nature can be explained on the principles of causality but is actually missing a telic design and purpose in nature. For biologists bird wings have a “function” for flying, but no more. There is nothing to be said in biology about the elegance of birds and their purpose in this evolving universe.
Wilber contends that each evolutionary stage of society produces a different outlook on art until the stage of postmodernism, which he suggests generated the idea of “multiple perspectives as a source of endless creativity.” He says critically that this produced a “paralyzing nightmare of infinite jest, met with infinite irony.” It is like postmodernists are proposing that the principle of “difference” be given a high value while “generalizations” be given limited value and that the “universal” is impossible.
But if we were to take Wilber’s view back to Table 1, we would say that in the new aesthetics, the “difference, generalization and universal” all have their place together. The universal and the particular make a difference significant as they stand in mutual opposition.
Notice how the hypotheses are unfolding in this proposed agenda for a new aesthetics. Scientists do not simply study nature and artists copy nature on the outside; rather, they dis-cover and re-present the “principles” embodied (hidden) in nature. They are both participant observers. Artists may be re-presenting principles discovered by scientists (e.g. synthesis, transformation) and scientists keep dis-covering more of nature’s intelligence. Aristotle and Plato were both right to some extent, but we do not yet know all the answers. This is a paradox to be studied in the new aesthetics.
More on the Principles of Evolution
There is more on the agenda for sociologists. Sociologists in the 19th century made an inquiry into the history of society as it was seen connected with the history of nature. Let us revisit this important tradition to see more of what is on the new agenda.
The 19th century view of evolution included such different writers as Karl Marx, Comte de Saint Simon, Auguste Comte, and Herbert Spencer. Spencer is notable for our purposes because he preceded Darwin with his concept of biological evolution and his coinage of the term “natural selection.” He saw nature and society both in a continuous “change from a state of relatively indefinite, incoherent, homogeneity to a state of relatively definite, coherent, heterogeneity.” His principle of evolution combined the “earliest changes which the universe at large is supposed to have undergone . . . and those latest changes which we trace in society and the products of social life.”
For Spencer, scientific principles answered the riddle of change in both the universe and society. Changes in human societies are but a special case of the larger evolutionary principle. For Spencer, all aspects of the universe -- inorganic, organic and social -- are subject to specific principles such as “integration, differentiation, and individuation” (the last notable in Social Statics ).
Spencer was interested in the connection of beauty with this history. He thought about how history would transform something utilitarian into something beautiful. He was working with the polar issue of distance vs. closeness in aesthetic appreciation and not talking simply in terms of psychology alone.
He recalled how Ralph Waldo Emerson had remarked “what Nature at one time provides for use, she afterwards turns to ornament.” Emerson had cited the structure of a seashell, in which the parts that have for a while formed the mouth are at the next season of growth left behind, and become decorative nodes and spines of aesthetic interest.
Spencer then says that this idea could be extended to human history. What was once utilitarian in society would be turned into something beautiful. The artifacts of one era would serve as embellishments to the next. The great leaders of history and the great events became transformed into works of art, placed in a museum or played on stage.
The busts of great men in our libraries, and their tombs in our churches; the once useful but now purely ornamental heraldic symbols; the monks, nuns, and convents, which give interest to a certain class of novels; the bronze mediaeval soldiers used for embellishing drawing-rooms; the gift of Apollos which reclines on time-pieces; the narratives that serve as plots for our great dramas; and the events that afford subjects for historical pictures;--these and such like illustrations of the metamorphosis of the useful into the beautiful, are so numerous as to suggest that, did we search diligently enough, we should find that in some place, or under some circumstance, nearly every notable product of the past has assumed a decorative character.
Spencer saw art connected with beauty, but he did not describe “nature” as a work of art. Let us say that he did not look at the insect as though it had its own form of beauty, showing a certain majesty and intrinsic value. He did not see the metamorphosing butterfly as a “significant form.” He did not observe the wars between animals like a novelist and compare them with human wars. He was in the vision of science, not in the vision of art.
But Henry Thoreau was an artist. He saw the symbolism in nature. For him nature represented something more than could be seen by the ordinary eye. He wrote with great feeling about what he saw.
The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely…. Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer’s eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state.
In the vision of science, we have a story of nature that is abstracted and impersonalized. Concepts, principles, and laws explain the process of evolution. Science has defined the history of nature, up to now.
In sum, Spencer thought of himself as a scientist. He described evolution in its genre, abstractly and impersonally. He wanted sociology to achieve the status of a science. And so by describing nature as evolving in principled and abstract terms, as “incoherent and homogeneous,” he could not see nature as a work of art. He could not see human consciousness as a symbolic re-presentation of nature transformed into a higher stage.
The universe is wider than our views of it.
In the genre of the artist, we should look into the history of nature with an appreciation of its architecture and its splendor, with a new exploration of its purpose. Scientists have shown how cells have an organic memory through biological inheritance, but now we can explore whether our subconscious carries a memory inter-bound with the brain and its cells and with its molecules and atoms.
If we look at nature with the eye of an artist, we become aware of the non-abstract, non-lawful, non-objective side of this evolution. We see a grand archive in nature full of opulence, power and beauty. We should look with an aesthetic eye at the intricacy of the molecular form, the character of a death star, perhaps the love songs of early birds. We should think about how nature could have evolved by both chance and purpose.
This is a challenge for sociology and aesthetics. Can we look inwardly and outwardly at the same time? Can we see the parallel between the inner and the outer?
These are critical times. We need to explore the parallels.
In sum, this is a new domain. We would call it theoretical aesthetics. Aestheticians should look at nature and art in a way that sees the interaction of classic opposites, like causality and telos (purpose), the beautiful and the ugly, the inner and the outer. The new aesthetics should study the larger mystery of nature in the context of society, a topic that has been lost by the segregation of subjects in the modern university.